Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.02.35

Laura Nicotra, Archeologia al femminile. Il cammino delle donne nella disciplina archeologica attraverso le figure di otto archeologhe classiche vissute dalla metà dell'Ottocento ad oggi. Studia archaeologica, 129.   Roma:  "L'Erma" di Bretschneider, 2004.  Pp. 297.  ISBN 88-8265-284-X.  €160.00.  

Reviewed by Elizabeth Colantoni, Oberlin College (
Word count: 912 words

Laura Nicotra's book, which originated as an Italian tesi di laurea, consists of a series of chapter-length biographies of female classical archaeologists, framed by a brief introduction and conclusions about the history of women in the archaeological profession from the nineteenth century to the present. Each biography includes introductory remarks about its subject's place in the history of archaeology, an overview of her life, a discussion of her work and intellectual contributions to the field of archaeology, and a selection of relevant black-and-white photographs. The outlines of the women's lives are almost entirely appropriated from other sources, and much of the commentary about their accomplishments is as well.

Eight women are profiled in the book. The first, Ersilia Caetani Lovatelli (1840-1925), was an upper-class woman from Rome who published popular studies of ancient Roman monuments and objects. She also hosted a regular salon for the most notable archaeologists of her day. The second biography is devoted to Esther Boise Van Deman (1862-1937), the American archaeologist best known for her work on the topics of ancient concrete, Roman aqueducts, and the Atrium Vestae in the Roman Forum. A chapter about the eminent British archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon (1906-1978) follows, with a discussion of her extensive fieldwork in the Middle East and in England and her influence in the areas of excavation techniques and ceramic analysis.

The life of Raissa Gourevitch Calza (1897-1979) is examined next. Born in Odessa, Calza devoted her considerable professional energy to studies of Ostia and of Roman portraiture. The career of Semni Papaspyridou Karouzou (1898-1994), the Greek archaeologist profiled after Calza, was closely associated with the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. Nicotra focuses on Karouzou's studies of ancient Greek geometric and classical pottery. The sixth biography concerns Gisela Marie Augusta Richter (1882-1972), the well-known Curator of Greek and Roman Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art who published articles and books on a wide variety of ancient art historical topics. A chapter is also devoted to the Italian scholar Luisa Banti (1894-1978) and her studies in the archaeology of Crete, Etruscan art, and Etruscan topography.

Alessandra Melucco Vaccaro (1940-2000) is the subject of the final biography. Melucco Vaccaro passed away prematurely in 2000, and this biography is, Nicotra (281) notes, the first to have been written about her. As such, it merits closer scrutiny than the other chapters of Nicotra's book. Melucco Vaccaro is perhaps best known to classical scholars for her work on the Arch of Constantine and on the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius in Rome, but she was also very active in the fields of conservation theory and medieval archaeology. In particular, she was a strong advocate of the idea that conservation interventions on ancient monuments and objects offer an opportunity not just for repair but also for scholarship. A prime example of this philosophy in action is Melucco Vaccaro's own study of the Arch of Constantine.1 In the course of cleaning and stabilization of the monument, she and her colleagues reached the controversial conclusion that the arch is not, as had generally been thought, a Constantinian construction decorated with recycled sculpture of the second century AD. Rather, they argued, the Arch of Constantine is in origin a Hadrianic monument, subsequently reworked by Constantine.

The past decade or so has seen the publication of several books exploring the place of women in the history of archaeology.2 Interest in the role of women in the development of archaeology specifically of the classical world is also on the rise, as evidenced by the publication in 2004 of both Nicotra's book and the edited volume Breaking Ground: Pioneering Women Archaeologists.3 Women have traditionally been excluded from histories of the discipline of archaeology, despite the very real contributions that some women have made. As Marie Louise Stig Sorenson4 has argued, this deficiency in scholarship should be corrected, and not just for the sake of setting the record straight: gender relations have actively affected the shaping of archaeological knowledge and practice, and women, having often pursued different research topics from men, have made unique and innovative intellectual contributions to the field of archaeology.

Viewed in this context, Nicotra's book seems promising: it brings attention to the role of women in classical archaeology, and it represents a handy compendium of information about several prominent female archaeologists. Nicotra's scholarship, however, offers little in the way of new material or ideas about the topic at hand. Indeed, some parts of Nicotra's text are taken directly from earlier Italian publications written by other scholars, while others are almost verbatim translations of articles and books already published in other languages.5 These are cited in bibliographies that appear at the end of each chapter in Nicotra's book, but the original authors are not given proper credit within the text, a particularly noteworthy omission when one considers how slavishly close Nicotra's words sometimes are to those in the earlier publications.6

The one chapter of Nicotra's book that represents a new contribution is the biography of Melucco Vaccaro. Here, Nicotra faithfully recounts Melucco Vaccaro's job titles and accomplishments, and she provides a discussion of Melucco Vaccaro's scholarship that never strays far from the information already appearing in the archaeologist's own publications. Nicotra succeeds in convincing the reader of Melucco Vaccaro's intellectual energy and her important legacies in the fields of archaeology and conservation, but she might have said more about her subject's motivations, inspirations, and influences, especially since she apparently had access to Melucco Vaccaro's colleagues, family, and personal papers.


1.   See Maria Letizia Conforto, Alessandra Melucco Vaccaro, Pietro Cicerchia, Giuliana Calcani, and Angela Maria Ferroni, editors, Adriano e Costantino. Le due fasi dell'arco nella valle del Colosseo, Electa, 2001, with previous bibliography; cf. Patrizio Pensabene and Clementina Panella, editors, Arco di Costantino tra archeologia e archeometria, "L'Erma" di Bretschneider, 1999.
2.   For example, Cheryl Claassen, editor, Women in Archaeology, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994; Margarita Díaz-Andreu and Marie Louise Stig Sorensen, editors, Excavating Women. A History of Women in European Archaeology, Routledge, 1998; Alice B. Kehoe and Mary Beth Emmerichs, editors, Assembling the Past. Studies in the Professionalization of Archaeology, University of New Mexico Press, 1999; Nancy Marie White, Lynne P. Sullivan, and Rochelle A. Marrinan, editors, Grit-Tempered. Early Women Archaeologists in the Southeastern United States, University Press of Florida, 1999.
3.   Getzel M. Cohen and Martha Sharp Joukowsky, editors, Breaking Ground. Pioneering Women Archaeologists, University of Michigan Press, 2004.
4.   Marie Louise Stig Sorenson, "Rescue and Recovery. On historiographies of female archaeologists," in Díaz-Andreu and Sorensen, cited above note 2, 31-60.
5.   A few (though certainly not all) examples of this phenomenon: compare Nicotra 83-84, 91, 97-100 and Hadidi 12-15; Nicotra 85-89, 92-96 and Prag 109-119; Nicotra 164, 167-168, 184-185, 188 and Edlund, McCann, and Sherman 279-280, 284, 286, 288; Nicotra 200-202, 204, 209-212 and Camporeale ix-xiii (Giovanni Camporeale, "Luisa Banti" in Studi Etruschi 1978:57:ix-xv; Ingrid Edlund, Anna Marguerite McCann, and Claire Richter Sherman, "Gisela Marie Augusta Richter (1882-1972): Scholar of Classical Art and Museum Scholar" in Women as Interpreters of the Visual Arts, 1820-1979, edited by Claire Richter Sherman with Adele M. Holcomb, Greenwood Press, 1981; Adnan Hadidi, "Kathleen M. Kenyon and her Place in Palestinian Archaeology" in Annual of the Department of Antiquities, Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, Amman 1976:21:7-17; Kay Prag, "Kathleen Kenyon and Archaeology in the Holy Land" in Palestine Exploration Quarterly 1992, July-December, 109-123). See also note 6 below.
6.   For example, on page 140, Nicotra says: "Semni Papaspyridi nacque a Tripoli nel 1897. Il padre era un ufficiale dell'esercito, e la madre--a sua volta figlia di un giudice--aveva ricevuto un'educazione di stampo francese, come la maggior parte delle ragazze della classe alta e medio-alta nella Grecia del XIX secolo. La professione del padre comportò frequenti spostamenti, così che l'infanzia di Semni fu trascorsa in molte città di provincia come Pirgos, Messolongi, Zacinto, Siros, Volos e Calcide ..." Compare this passage with the words of Marianna Nikolaidou and Dimitra Kokkinidou ("Greek Women in Archaeology. An untold story," in Díaz-Andreu and Sorensen, cited above note 2, 244-245), published in 1998: "She was born Semni Papaspyridou in Tripolis in 1897. Her father was a military officer, and her mother, the only daughter of a judge, had received a French education, as did most upper- and upper-middle-class girls in nineteenth-century Greece. Her father's profession required frequent moves and Semni spent her childhood in various provincial towns such as Pyrgos, Mesolongi, Zakynthos, Syros, Volos and Chalkis." The marked similarity between the two different texts continues for pages.

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